Darth Layer, Princess Laya and Jabba the Hen strut through a straw-lined coop that stands next to a tilapia habitat and “aquaponic” garden – one that grows in water, fertilized by nutrients pumped in from the fish tank – behind the house Scott Sumrall rents in Durham.
Sumrall, general manager of Durham’s Bull City Burger and Brewery and an urban farmer, showed off his feathery friends to community members and 40 students from Duke University professor Kathy Rudy’s animal ethics class during Saturday’s second-annual Bull City Coop Tour.
After touring coops last year, Sumrall said, he was inspired to incorporate one into his food-producing backyard. Rudy hoped that the mandatory field trip would spark an interest in urban chicken farming, or at least a conversation about the practice, among students.
“We’ll discuss the pros and cons of keeping food animals in industrial situations versus like this,” she said. “What kind of a world could we create that’s more fair to our animals?”
Durham is one of a growing number of cities – including Raleigh and Cary, which lifted its ban this August – allowing residents to keep chicken coops in their backyards. Durham requires that coops meet size standards and only allows for hens within city limits, because roosters are noisier.
About 35 Durham households have applied for and received a coop permit since the Durham ordinance passed in 2009, said Michelle Old, a member of chicken-farmer group Bull City Chickens and organizer of the event. Old said the coop tour provides an opportunity for those interested in starting their own coops to see how it’s done.
“We thought it would be a great way to educate people,” she said. “A lot of people want backyard chickens.”
Residents could trek among the tour’s 14 stops at their own pace, and the event was followed by a Chickenstock Festival at Bull City Burger and Brewery featuring live music and awards for Durham’s top-rated roosts.
Suggested donations at the coop tour benefitted Welcome Baby Durham, which works to ensure a safe sleep environment for children to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Many cities hold similar cause-related coop tours to raise money for charities while showcasing local egg farming, said cultural anthropologist Molly Mullin, who is researching a book on urban chicken farming and attended Saturday’s event as part of the Duke group.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say it gives legitimacy to the idea,” Mullin said.
She completed her doctorate at Duke and has spoken to Rudy’s students about her research as part of the class’s study of different types of animal farming.
Courtney Conner, a senior public policy major in the class, said Saturday’s trip motivated her to do additional research on the ethics of urban animal farming. That and other farm-animal related issues raised in the class have made her a more conscious consumer, she said.
“I just wanted to learn more about what I eat,” she said. “It feels like people have more of a connection to their food when they own chickens.”